By Stephen J. Nesbitt
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Two uncomfortable truths of life in the bullpen, left-hander Jeff Locke has learned since moving there, are his feet hurt from wearing spikes every day, and it's no longer cool to crush five cheesesteaks like he could have when his turn in the rotation still was a few days away.
Whether he actually scarfed five cheesesteaks isn't the point. Not until his doctor says so, anyway.
The point is the transition from starter to reliever isn't always easy, though it is awfully common. When Mark Melancon, a reliever every day of his professional baseball career, was traded in July, the Pirates were left with a bullpen composed entirely of converted starters. Locke is the latest, joining right-hander Juan Nicasio as the Pirates' long relievers who started the season in the rotation.
And if Locke is being honest, which he was Wednesday, he didn't grow up dreaming of this role.
"You don't get up in the morning and say, 'I want to be the long guy,' you know?" he said, a few hours before throwing a scoreless fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants. "That's like being the long snapper on a football team. No one dreams of it, but if you're good at it you go there."
So far, he's been good. After posting a 5.86 ERA over 19 starts this season, Locke entered the weekend having thrown 7⅓ scoreless innings in relief. He'd scarcely ever pitched out of the bullpen, though he fondly recalled a game May 29, 2008, when then-Atlanta Braves closer John Smoltz threw two innings in a rehab start with Class A Rome, and Locke went the last seven.
Almost every pitching prospect begins his climb to the majors as a starter, getting more innings and more experience. Eventually, some are bound for the bullpen. Sure, right-hander Jared Hughes conceded, the change can be hard, dashing a boyhood dream of pitching a complete game in Game 7 of the World Series. But it often puts a pitcher on a quicker path to the majors.
"You've got to edit the dream a little bit," Hughes said. "But to pitch in the major leagues, I don't care what they want me to do, I'm going to do it with a smile on my face."
A reality check
Hughes bristled at the notion the Pirates' relievers were "failed starters" once upon a time. Tony Watson wasn't a shabby starter in the minors, Hughes said, recalling Watson took his spot in the Class AA Altoona rotation in 2010 and struck out 10 over six innings in the Eastern League final.
A flexor strain in 2009 had forced Watson to the bullpen for the Arizona Fall League. He opened the 2010 season with a 1.84 ERA in 25 relief appearances for Altoona, pitching two to four innings a pop, and then made nine starts late in the season. In 2011, the Pirates bullpen needed help, so Watson and Hughes returned to relief and rocketed to the majors.
"At that point, it's: What's the fastest way to get to the big leagues and stick?" Watson said. "It was to be a left-handed reliever out of the bullpen. This is where everybody wants to be. Everybody wants to pitch in the big leagues. ... I obviously never saw myself as a closer."
Left-hander Antonio Bastardo started five games as a rookie for the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in 2009 before moving to the bullpen during winter ball. Lefty Felipe Rivero was a starter until the Washington Nationals made the switch at the end of spring training last year.
"It actually turned out very good, I think," said Rivero, who has a 3.38 ERA in 105 appearances.
Locke started alongside right-hander Neftali Feliz for two seasons in the Braves minor league system. Once in the majors, Feliz pitched three strong seasons in relief before Joe Nathan's arrival prompted the Texas Rangers to put Feliz in the rotation in 2012. He had a 3.16 ERA in seven starts, including a complete game, before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He has not started since.
"When I was a child, my biggest dream was just to play in the big leagues," Feliz said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. "It wasn't so much about being a starter or a reliever."
Locked into reality
Locke understands why he was been bumped from the rotation. In a career plagued by inconsistency, the bar set by an All-Star first half in 2013, he was even more uneven this season.
"Hit or miss," Locke said, describing his starts. "Penthouse or outhouse. That's the way the games were. They were either really good, or piss-poor bad. There was no in-between."
The lefty tossed his first career shutout May 30, a three-hitter, and followed with seven innings of three-run ball June 4. In his next two outings, however, Locke was shelled for 18 earned runs.
"At that point, [Jake] Arrieta had only given up 18 on the season," he said. "I gave that up in a week."
Whether his future returns him to the Pirates rotation, or keeps him in Pittsburgh, Locke said he is proud of the fact he made every start for three years. There were no late scratches, no blisters or hangnails or trips to the disabled list. Not many lefties in the majors can say that, Locke said.
The pace of the bullpen has been difficult to adjust to. Rather than have four days to prep, Locke said, "it's ring ring — get Locke ready — and as soon as that happens you see [pitching coach] Ray Searage walk out to the mound to give you a minute. Next batter, you're in."
There is a certain mental drain to constantly standing watch. And when games get close, that's typically when a long reliever knows he won't work that day. Asked if he could grow to like a bullpen job, Locke said he imagines a specified late-inning role would be an adrenaline rush.
Still, he would prefer to start, the way he always has.
"It's tough," Locke said. "It's hard to be used to doing something for so long and taking your time and making sure you stay healthy, don't do anything stupid, but now it's just go time. ...
"I'm frustrated of course that I have to go to the bullpen, but maybe it will be helpful."
So it's like what Hughes said. Sometimes you've got to edit the dream a little bit.
"Edit the dream?" Locke repeated. "Yeah. That's a good way of putting it."